Introduction to the Loire Valley
The Family of Loire Valley Wines
Loire Valley Wines are the wines that come from the vineyards scattered along the valley of the Loire River. No surprise there. But Loire wines themselves are full of surprises and thrills. They offer great (often surprising!) food pairings. And, possibly more so than any other great French region: amazing values.
And make no mistake: although the wines are generally budget friendly, the Loire Valley is one of France’s great wine regions. Just because many of the Loire’s wines are inexpensive doesn’t mean that it isn’t the source of some of the flat-out best wines in the world.
Loire's Lay of the Land
The Loire is a long river -- France’s longest.
It starts in the highlands of France’s Massif Central, flows north and then west across a big chunk of the country before emptying into the Atlantic Ocean. In that journey it crosses four distinct regions, each making distinct and delicious wines. The climate turns from classically continental to fully maritime, where the river empties into the Atlantic. Soils vary; micro-climates change; farming, winemaking traditions, and grapes all mutate to reflect local conditions.
All this diversity makes the Loire France’s most diverse region and contributes to making it France’s most exciting region. But it has also hidden the Loire’s essential unity from many wine lovers. Sancerre fanatics won’t necessarily think of a Chinon as a go-to red wine option; the Saumur collector may never consider buying age-worthy Sancerre.
What makes a Loire Wine?
The wines of the Loire are of a family. While they differ in many ways, they share an accessibility, and a basic aesthetic sensibility that lets you know they are related. To understand that aesthetic, you have to start with the observation that the Loire Valley is often called France’s garden. That will give you a sense of how good the foodstuffs and cuisine are. So it should be no surprise that the wines, from one end of the Loire to the other, have evolved to be enjoyed with food.
Loire wines are not big bruisers. They tend to be fresh wines with good acidity and refined tannins that help to make foods show their best. From light white wines, like Muscadet, that accent an oyster’s briney or stoney side, to a bigger red wine, like Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil or Saumur-Champigny, you could enjoy with a roast lamb, these are wines that bring definition to the food and freshness to the diner. Whether they are on the simpler, fruitier side, or the more complex and evolved end of the spectrum, they never tire the palate, but always leave you wanting more.
Even the Loire’s sweet side manages this trick. The region’s dessert wines (from Vouvray Moelleux, Coteaux du Layon and on and on) are on a par with the sweet wines of Sauternes or German TBAs in their ability to offer complexity and age-worthiness.
The Loire’s Long History
The locals have had a long time to master their trade. As in much of France, winemaking exploded with the arrival of Roman troops. And as in Burgundy, the monasteries developed the growing and winemaking techniques. But the Loire’s ease of access to the UK -- it was easy to ship wine down and out the Loire and then up the Atlantic coast -- helped it to develop an international reputation early on.
That international reputation remains to this day -- although they are, for the most part, considered a pleasure of commoners more than of royalty. So much the better for us commoners!
In this guide we will give you a quick overview of Loire’s main regions and links to more information on the key sub-regions and appellations. Later installments will dive deeper into some of our favorite regions, grapes and more. So stay tuned!
The Loire Valley and its Regions
The Loire Valley is really a series of regions and to understand the individual wines it helps to familiarize ourselves with these regions.
The Upper Loire
The “Upper Loire” is an informal name; there is no Upper Loire appellation and there is no French province of Upper Loire. But you will find some wine lists and wine stores that use the name to describe all wines up-river of Touraine -- everything from Sauvignon-Blanc superstars Sancerre, Pouilly Fume and their neighbors, up to and including some much rarer appellations, like Saint Pourcain (Red, White and Rose Wines) and the Côte Roannaise (Red wines).
- Upper Loire Part 2: Sancerre and the Central Vineyards
The Central Loire is home to the world-famous Sancerre Appellation and its lesser-known but equally worthy neighbors. The French call these the “Central Vineyards” (“centre-Loire”) because they are at the very center of France -- not the center of the Loire! But we think of the Central Loire as the very heart of the Sauvignon Blanc-world.
Sancerre is, of course, France’s most famous SB region. But it isn’t just Sancerre! Sancerre is surrounded by less-famous neighbors that make incredible wines with varying degrees of similarity to the classic Sancerre -- but almost always with lower prices.
The climate is still much like Burgundy’s and some of the soils are part of the same limestone-clay band that Burg-hounds love to freak out over. But in other spots the soils are rich in flint, which the French call silex. Sometimes they even put “silex” on their labels -- a trend that can help you know what to expect!
The centre-Loire’s main appellations are:
- Sancerre: white, red and rosé wines
- Pouilly Fumé: white wine
- Pouilly-sur-Loire: white wines made from Chasselas; different from Pouilly Fumé
- Menetou-Salon: white, red and rosé wines
- Quincy: white wines
- Reuilly: white wine, red wine from Pinot Noir and Rosé from Pinot Gris(!)
The Middle Loire: The Touraine, Saumur, and Anjou
Moving downriver from Sancerre the next major region we come to is the Middle Loire. The Middle Loire (like the Upper Loire) is an informal name we use in America to cover all the appellations between the Sauvignon Blanc-focused regions of Sancerre and the Central Vineyards down to the Muscadet-focused wines of the Pays Nantais.
We will treat the Middle Loire as two distinct regions and cover them separately: The Touraine and Anjou-Saumur.
The Touraine is made up of the wine regions that surround the city of Tours. It is one of France’s most exciting, most diverse, most interesting regions and, if you haven’t already, it is one of France’s most rewarding regions to dive into.
The Touraine has incredibly varied soils, and covers an area where the Continental climate starts to get some Atlantic influence. It is home to a huge number of grape varieties and makes France’s most incredible range of wines, from light and fresh bone dry whites, to unctuous dessert wines, and from easy drinking reds to cellar-worthy gems. It even makes sparkling wine.
The Touraine’s main appellations include:
- Vouvray: white wines ranging from bone dry, through sparkling, to decadently sweet
- Chinon: red, white and rosé wines
- Touraine: white, red, rosé and sparkling wines
- Bourgueil: red wine, with tiny amounts of rosé
- Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil: red wine
You will see these wines on lots and lots of good wine lists and in all good wine shops. But it would be a huge mistake to think about the Touraine without considering the fascinating off-the-beaten-path wines and appellations.
The Touraine’s less famous but totally-worth-getting-to-know appellations include:
- Jasnières: white wines from Chenin
- Coteaux du Loir: yes, “Loir” -- not a typo! The white wines are also from Chenin Blanc and the red wines are from Pineau d’Aunis
- Coteaux du Vendômois: red, white and very interesting rosé wines
- These three neighbors are often discussed together as “The Vendômois”
- Cheverny: white, red and sometimes rosé wines
- Cour-Cheverny: very rare white wine from the ancient Romorantin grape
- Montlouis: a Vouvray neighbor with a growing reputation
There are also a number of appellations with a local name appended to Touraine like Touraine-Amboise and Touraine-Chenonceaux. If you’re a big fan of Renaissance castles, these will ring a bell right away (Amboise and Chenonceau are two of the Loire’s more striking Chateaux). But even if you’re not, so long as you love wine, these are names to get to know.
Travelling east (that is, downriver) from the Touraine brings us to the Loire Valley’s last region before we hit the Atlantic Pays Nantais. This is Anjou-Saumur, land of the Loire’s most collectible red wine (in Saumur-Champigny), some of its most famous white wines (Savennières, Coulée de Serrant), and many of its most amazing sweet wines (Bonnezeaux, the Coteaux du Layon and Quarts de Chaume Grand Cru).
Anjou-Saumur’s wines are very focused on Cabernet Franc (for the reds and roses) and Chenin Blanc (white and sweet wines) -- more so than the Touraine, with its enormous range of secondary and rare varieties. The climate also begins to shift much more to an Atlantic influence as you move west, towards the ocean. The soils are different too, with much more slatey schist, sandstone, shales and volcanic rocks.
These differences can give the wines mineral signatures, aromas and bodies that differ from their neighbors in the Touraine, even when made with the same grapes.
Anjou-Saumur’s key appellations:
- Saumur: red, sparkling and a little white and rosé
- Saumur-Champigny: red wine only
- Anjou: red, white and a little sparkling
- Anjou-Villages: red wine only
- Cabernet d’Anjou and Rosé d’Anjou: rosé
- Savennières: white wine
- Coulée de Serrant: white wine
- Savennières Roches aux Moines: white wine
- Coteaux du Layon, Quart de Chaume Grand Cru, and Bonnezeaux: sweet white wine
- Crémant de Loire: sparkling
Muscadet and the Pays Nantais
And now we’ve made it to the end of the road: where the Loire empties into the Atlantic ocean. This is the “Pays Nantais” -- the area around the city of Nantes. This is seafood country and, not surprisingly, the specialties are white wines. And not just any white wine; the region is most famous for Muscadet, which may be the world’s most famous oysters wine.
There are technically 6 appellations in the Nantais, but if you’re only going to learn one word it is: Muscadet. It makes a bone dry (don’t confuse it with Muscat!) white wine from the Melon de Bourgogne grape, which gives a mirror into the soils and salt winds in which it grows.
The Nantais stands out from the rest of the Loire not just for its focus on this one rare variety, but also for the intense maritime influence and mix of granite and old volcanic rocks (igneous and metamorphic) shot though with gneiss, mica, and granite.
This wild, Atlantic countryside has always been a challenge to farm, the Melon grape has never been considered one of France’s noble varieties, and the wines have never risen in price to the level that would make growers into nobility (or attract the nobility to become growers). It can be hard to understand how the farmers and winemakers stick with it through thick and thin.
But we are incredibly grateful to the Pays Nantais’ devoted vignerons: they bring us some of the greatest value wines in the world.
In fact, not only have the persevered, they have actually managed to elevate the region’s reputation to the point that there is now a range of higher-end wines called “crus communaux,” which reflect specific terroirs in the region. The seven crus (Clisson, Gorges, Le Pallet etc) are named after the towns where the grapes are grown and represent some of the best wines in the Nantais and some of the greatest values in France.
How much do we like these wines? So much we’re going to give you a whole post devoted just to them! (Watch this space…)
For now, order some wines and be ready to sip while you read!